Quarterback Alex Smith and 49ers head coach Jim Harbaugh need to solve the team's red-zone woes. (Photo by Christian Petersen/Getty Images)
Perceptions can change quickly in the NFL. A team or player can slide from “hot” to “not” in the span of a week.
That may be the case with the 49ers, who, after losing to the Cardinals in Arizona this past Sunday, no longer appear to be the hot choice to earn the NFC’s No. 2 playoff seed.
San Francisco is 10-3, tied with New Orleans for second-best record in the NFC (behind Green Bay’s 13-0), but the Saints have surged the past few weeks.
ESPN’s John Clayton looks at what the 49ers have done offensively and doesn’t see a team that’s going to blow anybody over, despite its strong defense and special teams.
He notes that kicker David Akers, who has 36 field goals in 2011, is within four of tying the NFL single-season record – and that’s not necessarily a good thing.
The 49ers move the ball, but can’t seem to score TDs consistently when they get into the red zone. Last week in Arizona, the Niners got inside the Cardinals’ 10 three times in the first half and settled for field goals each time.
“Field goals don’t beat the Packers,” Clayton wrote about the Niners’ offense, should it ever face Green Bay in the playoffs. “Alex Smith has produced only 25 touchdown drives. The Saints and (Drew) Brees have produced 45 touchdown drives.”
In the past six games, reports the San Francisco Chronicle’s Eric Branch, the 49ers have scored just three TDs in 18 red-zone trips.
As Branch notes, one option the 49ers don’t seem to be using much in these opportunities is tight end Vernon Davis, a big, strong, proven talent.
Davis has been targeted by quarterback Alex Smith just twice in 25 red-zone passes during that span. Smith has completed both those passes to Davis, including an 18-yard TD in a previous win over the Cardinals.
Fox announcer John Lynch, wrote Branch, said during this past Sunday’s telecast that Smith needs to look for Davis more often in the red zone.
“Inside the red zone, there’s tight windows,” Lynch said. “And sometimes you’ve got to cut it loose. They may be doubling Vernon Davis, but sometimes go ahead and force it. He’s earned that trust.”
Davis, at 6-foot-3 and 250 pounds, has 49 catches this season for 548 yards (an 11.2-yard average) and five touchdowns. He’s long been a favorite target of Smith’s, and had seven TD catches in 2010 and a career-high 13 in 2009.
Another big target who has been unable to make an impact in the red zone is wide receiver Braylon Edwards. According to Branch, Edwards has been targeted four times inside the 20 over the past six weeks, but has yet to catch a pass.
On some red-zone opportunities against Arizona Sunday, Edwards wasn’t even on the field.
When asked after the loss about the team’s red-zone struggles, Edwards gestured toward the team’s other receivers, wrote Sacramento Bee reporter Matthew Barrows, and said, “Talk to them. They played. I didn’t.”
The 49ers – who play host to the Steelers on “Monday Night Football” this week -- rank last in the NFL with a red-zone TD scoring percentage of 35.5 percent.
Fortunately, the Niners rank first in the NFL in defense in the red zone, allowing just 35.7 percent of opponents’ possessions to result in TDs.
The defense has been the team's foundation all season, but the Niners will need more TDs from their offense -- not field goals -- when the playoffs begin.